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How the media should respond to Trump’s lies: State of the Union edition

A linguist explains how Trump uses lies to divert attention from the “big truths.”

President Trump, first lady Melania Trump and son Barron Trump, return to DC on February 3rd, after spending the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.
Al Drago-Pool/Getty Images

President Donald Trump will deliver his State of the Union address on Tuesday at 9 pm Eastern time. Although we don’t yet know what he will say, we can be fairly sure of one thing: He will lie.

As the Washington Post noted in December, the president has made more than 7,500 false claims during the first 710 days of his presidency. That’s ... a lot.

Trump’s lying has put the press in a lose-lose situation. As Vox’s Ezra Klein has argued, Trump thrives on opposition, and often the media plays right into his hands, feverishly chasing every lie and half-truth he utters or tweets.

Last November, I reached out to George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at UC Berkeley and the author of the 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant. Lakoff believes Trump exploits “journalistic convention by providing rapid-fire news events for reporters to chase” — this is what he calls the “big lie” strategy.

According to Lakoff, Trump uses lies to divert attention from the “big truths,” or the things he doesn’t want the media to cover. This allows him to create the controversies he wants and capitalize on the outrage and confusion they generate, while simultaneously stoking his base and forcing the press into the role of “opposition party.”

I spoke to Lakoff last year about how the media should deal with Trump’s lying. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

Can you lay out for me in simple terms how President Trump manipulates the media?

George Lakoff

He manipulates the media by constantly tweeting and saying more and more outrageous things. The media says, “Well, we have to cover the president. We have to repeat what he says.” But there is no real reason this has to happen. Journalists could, if they choose to, ignore the president’s tweets.

Sean Illing

What, then, would you have reporters do? Ridiculous or not, what the president of the United States tweets or says has real-world consequences, so it’s not quite that simple.

George Lakoff

I wrote a book called Don’t Think of an Elephant, which makes the point that if you negate a frame, you activate the frame. When Trump says something and people working in the media deny it, they’re helping him. But they don’t realize that they’re helping him.

There’s another possibility. Journalists could engage in what I’ve called “truth sandwiches,” which means that you first tell the truth; then you point out what the lie is and how it diverges from the truth. Then you repeat the truth and tell the consequences of the difference between the truth and the lie.

If the media did this consistently, it would matter. It would be more difficult for Trump to lie.

Sean Illing

So you’re saying that instead of amplifying the president’s message by repeating it in the course of debunking it, we should focus on his tactics and talk about the truths he’s trying to suppress.

George Lakoff

Well, not just talk about the truth he’s trying to suppress. The truth sandwich is more than that. It shows the difference between the truth and what he’s saying — putting the truth first, and then putting it afterward, and talking about its consequences.

People say, “Oh, well, here’s the real fact.” That doesn’t really matter because Trump is getting his frame out there first. What he’s trying to do in each of the tweets he sends out is to frame something first and then repeat it.

Notice that when you repeat something, you’re strengthening it in people’s brains. The more a neural circuit is activated, the stronger it gets. Trump is using certain communicative tactics that are very sophisticated and he doesn’t realize it.

Sean Illing

I take your point, but I wonder if Trump is just kryptonite for a liberal democratic system built on a free press. If someone is truly indifferent to the consequences of lying, if they welcome negative coverage and are backed by a base primed to disbelieve inconvenient facts, I’m not sure there’s much we can do to contain that person once they’ve ascended to power.

George Lakoff

It’s difficult; I know it’s difficult. But I don’t think it’s impossible. It has to do with the media not being willing to be manipulated by Trump, not being willing to say, “Oh, we have to report everything he says.”

If his tactics didn’t work, he wouldn’t be able to manipulate people the way that he has.

Sean Illing

So you’re saying that the president has created a situation in which journalists, by merely doing their jobs, are reinforcing his entire communications strategy.

George Lakoff

Right. That’s where we’re at, but you see, there’s still a question of what the media’s job is.

Many journalists still assume that language is neutral, that you can just repeat language and it’s completely neutral. In fact, language is never neutral. Language is always framed in a certain way, and it always has consequences.

If in the process of reporting, you simply repeat the language Trump is using, you’re missing what’s going on.

Sean Illing

But if the president spreads malicious lies, those lies have consequences. Take the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. Trump helped popularize a conspiracy theory about George Soros funding a caravan of illegal immigrants, and an extremist took that claim seriously and acted on it.

Isn’t that a strong case for why we have to expose or challenge lies?

George Lakoff

I totally understand, but simply exposing the lie about the Soros conspiracy theory doesn’t work, because to call it a lie is to repeat it, to repeat the content, which strengthens it in people’s brains. If I say don’t think of an elephant, you think of an elephant.

Sean Illing

So how exactly should the media have responded in this case to the Soros conspiracy theory tweeted by the president?

George Lakoff

By not reporting it.

Sean Illing

At all?

George Lakoff

Not one bit.

Sean Illing

The president has 58 million Twitter followers and a vast conservative media-industrial complex that will happily amplify his comments. Nothing the rest of the media does will change this. Is there a solution to this problem?

George Lakoff

Well, it’s not a simple solution, and your point about the conservative media is a good one. But you have to have a media that is engaged with what I call truth sandwiches and that repeats them — that’s all you can do.

Sean Illing

Why do Republicans seem to be doing much better in terms of framing the debate?

George Lakoff

A lot of Democrats believe in what is called Enlightenment reasoning, and that if you just tell people the facts, they’ll reach the right conclusion. That just isn’t true.

People think in terms of conceptual structures called frames and metaphors. It’s not just the facts. They have values, and they understand which facts fit into their conceptual framework. You can’t understand something if your brain doesn’t allow it, if your brain filters it out in terms of your values.

Democrats seem not to understand this, and they keep trying to employ reason as a persuasive vehicle. I wish Enlightenment reasoning was an accurate model for how most people think and judge, but it isn’t, and we better acknowledge that fact.

Sean Illing

So on some level, you’re saying that Democrats have to accept that they’re playing a different kind of conversational game, in which truth and falsity are irrelevant. If that’s the case, what use is there for a free press, or for discourse at all?

George Lakoff

Well, that’s why the truth sandwiches are important. Let me say one more thing that’s really crucial in this respect. Kellyanne Conway talked about alternative facts at one point, so the phrase comes from her. When I heard that, it occurred to me that there’s a sense in which she’s right.

If you’re someone who shares Trump’s worldview, there are certain things that follow from that worldview. In other words, certain things have to be true, or have to be believed, in order to sustain that worldview. The things that aren’t actually true but nevertheless preserve that worldview are “alternative facts” — that’s what Conway was getting at, whether she knew it or not.

The conservatives use those alternative facts all the time, and so does Trump. If he’s talking to his base, he’s talking to people who have already bought into a picture of the world, and his job is to tell them things that confirm that picture — and he knows they’ll believe it for that very reason.

I think we have to understand “alternative facts” in this way, and understand that when Trump is lying, he’s lying in ways that register with his audience. So it may be lying, but it’s strategic lying — and it’s effective.

Sean Illing

Do you think the media is going to be able to adapt and figure this out, or do you think it’s going to persist in aiding Trump in the way it has?

George Lakoff

I’m an optimist. I think the media can get out of it. But I don’t know if it will.

Journalists don’t study the field of cognitive science. They don’t study how brains actually work and how the mind works. Cognitive science is a field that is not widely reported on, but it needs to be, because journalists cannot serve the public if they don’t understand basic facts about the human mind.

The sorts of things I’m saying have to be repeated over and over — it has to be argued. The evidence has to come forth.

This interview was originally published on November 15, 2018.